Picture Perfect

The travelling Cinematograph (or Bioscope show) has been put in context elsewhere on this website. This feature provides a little insight into what these shows represented.

The travelling Cinematograph was the swansong for the travelling show on the fairground. Since its demise, around the time of World War I, plenty of fairground shows have come and gone, but none displayed the sheer brazen chutzpah that the travelling Cinematograph had in spades.

Winding the clock back to the late 1880s, the Waxworks, Menageries and Ghost Shows had grown increasingly in size. Shows in which “1,000 people can be comfortably accommodated” (according to one boast of the time) meant that shows of this type were ideal for showing films.

Gaslight, camera, action!

When the Lumiere brothers demonstrated their Cinematographe in Paris in 1895 and again in London the following year, someone to quickly see the potential of the “wonder of the new age” was Lancashire showman, Randall Williams.

Williams travelled a Ghost Show, “the Greatest Ghost Show in the World” no less, that was exhibiting at the Royal Agricultural Hall, Islington (London), during the Christmas of 1896. He was one of a group of showmen to attend a private viewing of films shown with a Cinematographe device. Seeing the potential he immediately bought film stock, returned to the Agricultural Hall and changed his show into a “Living Picture Exhibition.”

The novelty soon caught on and many old shows were adapted for exhibiting films. Even in menageries, films were screened between performances of lions. One witness remembered the

“ludicrous experience of being in a tent with cages containing roaring lions and tigers and chattering monkeys and behold a real living picture, which flickered to such an extent that one invariably had as big a headache as the animals after the performance.”

The shows developed as more money was earned and poured into new film stock. Messrs Orton, Sons and Spooner of Burton on Trent produced lavish show fronts, often built around grand mechanical orchestras by Gavioli or Marenghi. Portable lighting engines and later steam road locomotives produced the electricity to light the arc lamps used to illuminate the fronts of the show at night, with exotic front-stage shows with paraders in expensive costumes giving free entertainment in the hope that it would entice the public into the show. One observer added that

“it may be unkind to say so, the exterior of these shows are more interesting than the interior, for the proceedings prior to filling the houses are more lengthy and attractive than the show itself.”

The zenith for the shows came around 1907 when the better-off proprietors were all investing in huge organ-fronted shows. At Hull Fair that year there were no fewer than seven such cinematographs. As well as Randall Williams there were Aspland’s, Farrar’s No. 1 and No. 2, President Kemp’s, Captain Payne’s and Relph & Pedley’s shows. “When shall we cease to speculate,” ran a line of a poem printed in the showman’s journal, World’s Fair, describing the incredible line-up at Hull.

For some far too much had already been invested, and with too many permanent picture houses opening in every town the end was in sight for the travelling shows. Despite efforts to attract people with variety acts incorporated into the film shows few were still on the road when the Great War broke out in 1914. Some showmen cut their losses and had the massive show organs rebuilt to fit into new Scenic Railway rides, but others simply vanished, left to rot in yards or burned to salvage the gold leaf.

Most of this feature was originally written by Stephen Smith and appeared, with permission, on the now defunct thegalloper.com.